Aditi Roy* plans to celebrate the end of her five-year dual degree with an overseas move, a year-long break, and casting aside her future in engineering.
“I want to get my foot in production houses,” she says. “Scout out roles, and agencies. Whatever I can when I’m over there. Your typical ‘struggling actor’ kind of story.”
To Roy’s credit, her story is slightly different. She’s not relocating to Los Angeles or New York — she’s going to Mumbai.
Roy’s acting experience is entirely university based: roles in revues and student films by friends at Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). It’s difficult to put aside time to act as a full-time engineering student, but Roy admits she could have done better. “I’m definitely not [the most experienced],” she says, with some self-deprecation. “I think that’s obvious.”
Roy doesn’t seem to think her non-acting background will hamper her chances in the long run. “Obviously it’s good to have acting experience and hopefully I get that in Mumbai. But in Bollywood, I think there’s a trend of actresses coming from modelling or dancing backgrounds.”
She cites Madhuri Dixit and refers to her own classical training, ongoing since she was three. Her confidence in her skillset, however, is not enough to curb apprehension – the big move is only a few months away and her one Mumbai contact is her uncle.
“I am very worried,” Roy admits.
Roy’s story is part of an emerging trend of young Asian Australians considering careers in overseas Asian entertainment industries.
Richard Tang*, a former student at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), now enrolled at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM), says he wants to be a star.
“I think [in the Sydney K-pop community] a lot of them do wish to become a star. But I feel like I’m the only one that’s actually taken steps to do it.”
It’s a grand declaration, but not one without substance.
Tang is in his early twenties and only started dancing seriously during university. Yet his achievements so far are notable: transferring to a music degree; opening for SBS PopAsia’s Big Bang pre-show concert, and getting a callback from Jackie Chan Group Korea (JCGK). JCGK, Jackie Chan’s business in Korea, was responsible for debuting K-pop boy group JJCC.
“They asked if I could sing and I said no,” he says about the auditions, which were held in Sydney last year. “I think that’s why they didn’t go forward with me.”
Tang has since focused on improving his singing skills. “I think it’s easier to be a good dancer than a good singer,” he explains. “So singers are more rare and more wanted.”
Considering dancers in South Korean boy groups tend to outnumber vocalists two to one, he has a point.
Tang emphasises that he isn’t focusing solely on K-pop. “I want to break into the Western industry,” he clarifies, “just so I can show them how good Asians can be.”
Priya Bakshi*, another aspiring performing artist, also has her eyes set on more than one entry point. A current commerce student at UNSW, Bakshi is a semi-regular workshop attendee at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), which she hopes will refine her acting skills.
“I don’t really care what route gets me there, as long as it does get me there,” Bakshi says.
Bakshi wants to be an actress, ideally on the silver screen. She criticises Bollywood for being anti-progressive and misogynistic, yet her career goals are oriented north-west to Mumbai. When asked for clarification, Bakshi is frank and unapologetic.
Besides acquiring an agent, Bakshi’s acting experiences to-date are comparable to Roy: limited to student productions and unsuccessful auditions. She is similarly unfazed, citing a background in dancing and Bollywood’s historical habit of prioritising physical features over acting ability.
“I’m looking at entering a pageant actually,” she says.
Her reasoning is coolly pragmatic: “I think it might be a fast-track way in.”
The pageant Bakshi is considering is the Miss India Australia competition, founded in early 2001 by Bollywood talent consultant, Raj Suri. On his website, Suri’s biography says Miss India Australia is “the base for Australian talent to … Bollywood & beyond” and, since 2011, “Raj personally trains, grooms and prepares Australian talent to represent overseas.” How valuable this will be is uncertain, but the appeal of Miss India as a door to Bollywood – at least in the popular imagination – cannot be understated. Indian-Australian actress Pallavi Sharda won the competition in 2010.
Basic registration is $49 and includes an interview with the Miss India Australia panel. Optional extras, such as photoshoots, showreels, a professional portfolio, and four to twelve weeks of training and mentorship by Raj Suri, can be purchased at registration for up to an additional $250 to $2900 depending on the package. Another Miss India Australia hopeful is sceptical that the competition can be won without indulging in add-ons: “It’s not common to enter a pageant with little to nothing and win. It’s usually a lot more than that.”
Steep prices are not unusual for businesses providing avenues for Asian Australians to pursue work in Asian entertainment industries. The Academy, an agency which opened in 2016 and holds an annual K-pop style boot camp, charges $50 for a solo audition and $1000 for the camp itself.
“We spend a lot of money on production,” says Angela Lee, founder of The Academy. “We spend a lot on making sure things are good.”
Whilst acknowledging the high cost, Lee appears earnest in her desire to bring Australian talent into the K-pop world. “When you’re nurturing a business you’re always looking at profitability. But what we want to do objective-wise is really push Australia out into Asia.”
Whereas SM, YG and JYP are K-pop companies known for holding worldwide auditions, Lee says The Academy works with second-tier K-pop agencies that don’t have the same financial capabilities. She says her boot camp is designed to emulate the typical, harsh K-pop trainee lifestyle, although she admits OH&S laws in Australia prevent overworking and underfeeding boot camp attendees the way K-pop agencies do. “It may be a little bit… watered down… but it’s still 15 hours a day and it still allows the scouts to observe the trainees for seven days. Some break, some don’t broke [sic]. [The scouts] need to know whether you can survive for that week, let alone the next four years.”
“We’re here for the long term,” stresses Lee, likely alluding to previous K-pop programs in Sydney which emerged then suddenly collapsed.
Despite the existence of these avenues, many Asian Australians remain unconvinced about their odds as non-Koreans. “It feels a little bit impossible,” says a former reporter for Seoulbeats, an online news platform for Korean entertainment.
Michael Kim, a correspondent at the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), thinks the process for aspiring non-Korean Asian K-pop idols is less futile than perceived.
“There has been an increase in the number of K-pop groups which consist of members from diverse cultural backgrounds. For example GOT7 and TWICE are groups which members are from different countries. There has been an increase in the number of people from overseas who want to become K-pop stars.”
Kim is right in this regard. K-pop is gaining interest from non-Korean people. An African American member was added to the girl group Rania, and more recently, EXP Edition, a mostly White American boy group, debuted.
“[Trainers] are looking for unique characters,” he says. He is talking about this in the context of whether there can be a stronger connection between agencies in Korea and K-pop hopefuls in Australia. “In Korea, talents are really similar, trained at the same school.”
Looking outward for talent appears to be a byproduct of South Korea’s larger national branding efforts, of which KOFICE is part.
“Korea has actually been the best exponent of using soft power as a means to sort of export their culture around the world,” says Johnny Au, editor-in-chief of Hello Asia, an Asian music and culture publication based in Australia.
The result, he says, is that Korean pop music is an export-orientated product, more susceptible to being globalised. Indeed, companies like KOFICE spread Korean culture through funding K-pop communities (Kim claims UNSW K-pop society received a three-year financial subsidy from 2012 to 2014) and in return K-pop surges into a global market, in which it is necessary to internationalise.
“Having one English-speaking member will instantly make it easier to promote your group internationally,” says Au. He points to real-life examples: South Korean girl group Red Velvet’s Wendy was raised in Canada and became known as the English speaker of the group. “It makes it easier for international fans. It is very much a template many entertainment industries are working with at the moment.”
Bollywood, on the other hand, is a comparatively closed industry, especially for those coming from overseas. Whilst Bollywood films have a firm hold on the collective conscious of a diaspora, the groundworks in Australia are relatively weak.
“There’s not a lot of organisations […] that help people get to Bollywood,” says Roy. “There’s still a gap here. More and more people accept they have to go to the heart of it, to Mumbai, and over there you’re one in a million trying.”
Bakshi echoes this sentiment. “Bollywood is hard to get into. You need to make a lot of calls, a lot of emails, a lot of favours.”
Even if a person manages to make a career in either Bollywood or K-pop despite the cultural differences, the language barriers, and the crippling uncertainty, challenges are ongoing.
Pallavi Sharda, an Indian-Australian Bollywood actress, who debuted with a cameo role in My Name is Khan and later went on to star in Besharam, says she knew no one in Mumbai, highlighted some of the difficulties she faced in a 2014 interview with 60 Minutes. “There was no opportunity, I had to sort of find and then work hard at getting somewhere. That was tough. Just trying to find people that would listen to me, that would take me seriously.”
Lee says, “[People] may think they’re gonna be okay […] in the K-pop method of training but in reality, if they have a taste of it, they might realise it’s a lot more difficult than they think.”
“You hear a lot of stories where people got selected as trainees, trained for years and then they got out.”
Henry Mak, a 26-year old Chinese-Australian member of JJCC, exposed his strict regime in a 2016 ABC interview. “Before our comeback we eat once a day, we run three hours a day, dance for like seven, eight hours a day.”
He refers to the harsh lifestyles of his colleagues, too. “When JJCC was training there was another girl group called LABOUM and they were trainees back then. Their weight was very controlled and they would get nervous every single time they had to step on a scale.”
Although Mak had ‘run away’ from home to pursue his passion in the performing arts, he admits, “If I knew about [the K-pop regime] I probably wouldn’t choose this road. But now it’s a bit too late for me.”
In December 2016, it was rumoured Mak had secretly left JJCC.
In light of all these difficulties, why do it?
“It’s a cop-out answer,” says Roy, “but I’ve always loved Bollywood.”
In her 60 minutes interview, Sharda echoes this. “I used to watch the films growing up and I found something escapist about them and magical about them” she says. “I loved studying what I did but I knew that I had to get to Bombay and be an actress.”
Roy even suggests that cultural passion is essential to success in the industry. She says Asian Australians who see India as an easier market to break into “either don’t succeed in the long term or they don’t really try for a career.”
“The people who actually want to go to Bollywood go because they love it, they appreciate it in its entirety.”
Whilst the issue of poor representation of people of colour in Australian media came into play, and was cited by several of our interviewees as a reason for why young second or third-generation migrants may look towards these industries, it wasn’t a dominating narrative.
K-pop being a relatively new phenomenon means many of those now pursuing careers had also watched the growth of the industry. “They want to look like them,” Kim says, citing a process of imitation. “They start to copy them as well, in fashion, in makeup.” At the height of it is a desire to live and work like them.
Lee believes this is to do with the image of stardom that K-pop often projects. “You’re drawn to that stardom, you’re drawn to that attention and it’s very natural for young people to go ‘oh my god, look at this superstar, look at this fantasy world.’ It’s not a new thing.”
While it may not be a new thing, Lee is right that being drawn to the fame, the glitz, the glamour is a long term phenomenon. There’s no denying K-pop and Bollywood are, in their own right, exciting and colourful, especially to those who may already identify with the industries on a more personal level.
In our interviews the allure of fame did seem to underlay many of these overseas pursuits. It was not without criticism or concern though. Whilst our interviewees wished to be anonymous for a myriad of reasons, self consciousness was a strong one. Roy mentioned being worried about backlash from her small Indian community.
It is not surprising how these pursuits can be construed negatively. Fame has become a dirty word; the search for it deemed inherently frivolous. We don’t necessarily agree. For young Asian Australians to have stardom as an option, in spite of a media industry which often denies it to them, may actually be a good thing.
*Names have been changed.